The indescribable meanness of being Railtrack

They agreed that the pocket of land was worthless and said they would sell it for pounds 10,000
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THERE WAS a news story about Railtrack yesterday, to the effect that their pre-tax profits were pounds 450m. Their man said on the radio that it was important to make that much money, so that it could be reinvested.

Let me tell you another story about Railtrack. I live near Bath, in a long thin village called Limpley Stoke, through which the main Bath-Weymouth line runs. Most of the village is grouped together on one side of the line - the pub, the shop, the former station and most of the houses. However, you have to cross the railway to get to the river Avon, to the bus stop on the main road, to the busy canal and to our local restaurant and tea garden.

How do you cross the railway? Well, there used to be a choice. You could either climb a gate and walk over a crossing, or you could follow the road under a viaduct. Of course, it is not very safe to walk across the line, as there is a train every half hour or so. On the other hand, it is extremely dangerous to walk under the viaduct, as there is no pavement and there is a vehicle coming round fast every half minute or so - from one side the traffic even comes round a blind bend.

But there is no choice any more, as Railtrack decided to remove the crossing. They took up the wooden sleepers on which we walked, and then, sensing that we might still try to go this way, they came at night and hammered ugly metal fences into the gate on both sides so that nobody could climb on to the line. Good old Railtrack: stealthily doing good in the middle of the night, in case anyone should notice.

Now, Wiltshire County Council have looked at various schemes to make the road safer, such as a pedestrian tunnel and traffic lights, and have found them all too expensive. So the parish council came up with a simpler scheme recently, which would involve the use of a bit of scrubland on the shoulder of the bridge, belonging to Railtrack. The county council thought it was workable and earmarked pounds 10,000 for it. Railtrack representatives came to a meeting.

There were two results of their visit. One was that they noticed that people could still get on to the railway line and decided to put up the Colditz fences. The other was that they agreed that the pocket of land was worthless, and said they would sell it to the council for pounds 10,000. Yes, a worthless piece of land, the size of two or three parking spaces, could be ours for as little as pounds 10,000, the entire cost of the scheme.

Oh, come on, Railtrack - why not just give it away? Ah, we have our shareholders to think about! That was the chorus from Railtrack. They are our first priority. Not the public good, or even public relations, not the danger caused by shutting the old crossing and putting up fences in the middle of the night, but the shareholders...

Here's another story about Railtrack. A few months ago, Jonathan Dimbleby, a local resident, wrote an angry letter to the Bath Chronicle pointing out that every clock in Bath Spa station had stopped. Notably, the clock on the station front, visible all the way down Manvers Street which leads to the city centre, was defunct. Who was responsible for such indifference to the public interest?

I did not see an answer. Nor did I see the Bath Chronicle mount an investigation. (Not that one expects the Bath Chronicle to investigate anything. Their principal idea of investigation is printing angry letters.) Nor did I see any improvement in the clocks. Those in the booking hall are still motionless. The one on the facade has started again, and has been keeping the wrong time every since. When I went past Bath Spa station yesterday, the clock was nearly two hours wrong.

Now, as Railtrack is in charge of stations and lines, it is pretty clear to me that they are also in charge of station clocks, and I can only suppose that getting the great clock on the front of Bath Spa station to work properly would cost money, and therefore eat into profits, and therefore offend the shareholders.

To which I can only say that the mean record in these stories (and countless others) is highly offensive to anyone who is not a Railtrack shareholder and that on the day they have announced a profit of pounds 450m, it is hard to work out how they would justify not having the spare cash to mend a clock or stop people being killed by donating a handkerchief of land.

STOP PRESS. I have just heard that Railtrack have decided not to ask pounds 10,000 for the land. They are now asking pounds 5,000. Plus legal fees. Plus costs. Costs? Oh, the cost of checking with all Railtrack departments that the land might not be needed in future plans. How much would that cost? Oh, a few thousand. Bringing it near to pounds 10,000 again? Yes, in all probability.

Good old Railtrack. All heart.